Wednesday, December 03, 2008

What's there to be said?

The cold winter months of 2005 were stressful ones.

My three-year gig in Illinois was coming to a close.

In the previous autumn I'd sent out several dozen job applications, to schools ranging from tiny Alfred University in upstate New York to the Harvard of the West, Stanford University, where maybe just maybe I could secure a second postdoc. Came December, and I started hearing tiny peeps: Cal State Chico had requested a phone interview (which I granted; I thought it went reasonably well), a colleague at Louisville had indicated that he'd seen my application and that his department might be in touch with me in the coming weeks, and a few other schools indicated they'd like to tawk. "Are you going to the Joint Meetings?"

I hadn't planned to. "Unless you're giving a talk in a special session, don't bother going," my Ph.D. adviser had told me three years before when I'd first hit the job market. "The only schools that interview there are the little ones, and you should be gunning for a postdoc." Like a good father, he wanted more for me than he'd had himself.

That was then, this was now.

Within the span of a few short days Seattle University, Carleton College, and UNC Asheville, all on my Top Ten list, contacted me and let me know they'd like to see me in Atlanta.

What the hell, why not? With only a week to go before the meeting, Maggie and I once again secured the services of Gisela, the matronly German retiree who was our regular dogsitter, packed a couple of suitcases, and with the first flurries of 2005 falling gently on the roof of our '97 Camry we began the 10-hour trip to Georgia's capital. (That it's only 10 hours from Urbana to Atlanta is somewhat surprising; it seems that it ought to take longer than that.)

I felt that my meetings with the three schools named above went well (clearly one of them went particularly well!), and although we were only there for half of the conference (I never actually registered!) we had a good time while we were there, catching a few interesting talks, seeing old friends, and putting together the first of what have now been four Annual Semiofficial Vanderbilt Mathematics Department Dinners.

I felt good about the conference, and was in good spirits during the northward drive.

Soon, though, bitterness set in.

Ned, my officemate of two years, was a highly talented number theorist who by the end of his first year at UIUC had already had an article in Inventiones and who was popping out papers at an impressive rate. I'm no slacker, but it was no secret that I put as much stock in my teaching as a I did in my research, so my publication rate couldn't compare with Ned's. Moreover, while offering fascinating and fun problems that are accessible even to talented undergraduates (thus making the field an ideal one for the focus of an REU), geometric group theory is not a particularly "sexy" subfield of mathematics, and its practitioners are not in unduly high demand. Number theory it ain't.

Hardly a day went by during January and February without our office answering machine recording a new interview request for Ned. Every day I'd trudge into campus through the snow, pull aside the heavy front door to Altgeld Hall, wind my way up the stairs to our office on the west wing overlooking the Math Library, and the first thing I'd see as I entered our office would be the blinking light on that goddamned answering machine.

"Hi, this message is for Ned Cochran...this is Joe Schmo at the University of Upper Iowa, and we were wondering if..."

Damn it.

The stress began to mount. I was a wreck. I never seriously thought that I'd be jobless, but what if I ended up having a to take a one-year appointment at a school with no research activity and a 5-5 teaching load, at $5,000 less per year than I'd been paid at Illinois? The market that year was better than the past had seen, but offered nothing close to milk and honey.

To help us kill the time our friend Kurt, an avid Trekkie, began lending us his Deep Space Nine DVDs, season by season. It took a few weeks to make it through the first set of disks, but as the pressure grew and I saw less and less of Ned (there were weeks when he had on-site interviews back-to-back-to-back and I felt like his secretary, piling sticky notes on his desk: "Prof. Gregson at Lower Quebec Superior College requests that...") Maggie and I quickened our pace. We finished Season Four in two nights.

"Can I come over and get Season Five?"

"Sure, dude. Rough week?"

Several of 'em. During which I felt impotent and useless. Somehow I managed to get a lot done: I continued to co-host our weekly radio show, I began finishing up the manuscript I'd soon be sending to my publisher, I started what would soon be two more papers of which I'm still quite proud, and I successfully put together my first (and so far only) grad-level course. How I managed all of this I'll never know, as I felt daily and nightly paralyzed by anomic and debasing stress.

As regular readers of this blog (I pity you, poor souls!) must know, this story has a happy ending. Once the clog consisting of the superstar scholars like Ned worked its way through the pipes, the second-tier folks like me (a better researcher than most "teaching" faculty and a better teacher than all but the rarest researchers, but not absolutely aces in either) had our go: the calls began to come. Within the span of two weeks at the end of February and the beginning of March I had six interview requests, from one of which grew my current position.

Happily. Ever. After.

Present contentment calms the waters of the past. Lacking the scarifying effect physical violence might leave on our bodies, psychic violence often can be forgotten. Trying times seem positively historical until those times are relived once again.

The past two months have seen me gripped with a paralytic torpor the likes of which I'd not seen in three and a half years.

I blame the economy.

And the Republican party.

And the general helter-skelter state of world affairs.

The last two months I've spent in almost biminutely refreshing sites like (who's ahead?) and (what're they saying?) and (hasn't he fucking won yet?!?), sitting zombified in front of my computer, obsessing on the electoral effect of out-of-work black Pennsylvania lesbians in the automotive industry.

And it wasn't just me. For two months just now, all was atwitter. Water cooler conversations were echoic, little more than he-said/she-said murmurs, gurgling trickles of rehashed political rhetoric. We all walked around dazedly and without conviction, as though all we did was rehearsal for the real deal, some grand pageant to be enacted a few months hence. We lacked motivation, and we were nervous. We fidgeted. Fingernails were made ragged and gnawed, eyes were rendered sleepless and puffy. We went to the edge, over it, even, and then we dangled there, gazing downward, pleading skyward, feeling our grip slacken as we sank...

Then we slept. If only for one night, we slept.

I slept for four short hours, drunk on a bottle of my lovely friends' very lovely red wine and on the excitement of a 21-hour day on which, as the Chief Election Judge for my electoral precinct, I truly feel I helped to usher in a new era.

We slept, and we're waking up now. I'm waking up.

What's gone on as I've slumbered?

The semester's nearly gone now. There are three class periods remaining in Precalc, and only two in each of my Abstract Algebra sections.

I've misjudged the amount of time I'd have for the former class, and I find myself cramming too much trig into the few hours that remain. I'm discarding all but the bare essentials, as I've got only a tiny duffel bag to serve for an oceanic passage. I feel rushed and uncomfortable.

Overall I've got mixed feelings about the way my first experience in teaching Precalculus has turned out.

As I've said in earlier posts, I'm glad I've been given the opportunity to teach the course, and I've learned boatloads from so doing. For instance, I've learned to take nothing for granted, even concepts that have become so automatic to me that I feel as though I understood them upon springing forth from my mother's womb. I've gained much more valuable practice in the art of using in-class team activities in lower-level mathematics courses. And I've had a chance to interact with students the likes of which I don't often meet in my other, higher-level, courses; namely mathphobes who really don't give a rat's ass about mathematics and who, once the semester has ended, have no intention of ever looking at another number so long as they live.

On the flip side, I've fallen in the mud a few times. I've muddled clumsily through explanations of things I've never had to explain before, I've faced attendance problems that dwarf any I've seen in classes I've taught in the past, and I've reached the semester's end feeling saddled with a slight sense of resentment. Do I resent them? I don't know. Do they resent me? I don't know. I could certainly be mistaken (I almost always have an end-of-semester freak-out about my students' perception of me as a teacher: "are my evals going to suck?"), but I feel that there's a chill, a distance, between me and them.

I've worked as hard as I've known how to in order to make this class a success...but have I done all that I could have done?

I don't know.

Maybe I just have to accept that most of the folks who took this course came in with very low expectations, and that if I've helped them to go even an inch beyond those expectations, I've succeeded.

Student presentations began in the second section of Abstract Algebra today. Derrick and Miguel started us off with a bang, giving two unintentionally interlaced talks on fundamental groups and free groups. Their talks were technical, clear, well-timed, and well-organized. I hope the next couple of days will bring more presentations of this quality.

Twelve of this semester's twenty-nine Abstract I students are continuing on to Abstract II with me in the spring. I'm looking forward to it already. (I might also mention that several of my Precalc students are on board for my Calc I class, too, and my 280 course is filled by wonderful blasts from the's going to be a great semester!)

What else has happened while I've slumbered?

Hell, what hasn't?

Just as in the winter of 2005, life's gone on even as I've numbly watched it pass. There's a lot to be said, but I'll say it later.

For now, it's late, and I've got another long day tomorrow.

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